When Art Davie and Rorion Gracie founded the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) on 18 November 1993, neither could have imagined the impact their brainchild would have. Its current CEO, and UFC President since 2001, Dana White certainly held the vision, though.
Under White's leadership, the UFC has grown into a multi-million dollar enterprise and one of the most widely followed brands in sports entertainment. The recent September 2023 merger with World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) promises to grow the enterprise even further.
Some great fighters have graced the Octagon, from legends like Ken Shamrock and Khabib Nurmagomedov to Conor McGregor and Anderson Silva. Since 2012, Women's MMA has further enhanced the brand's following. Drawcards like Olympic Judo medalist Ronda Rousey and the recently retired reigning two-division UFC champ Amanda Nunes have seen to this.
Current UFC champions like Jon Jones, Alexander Volkanovski, Alexa Grasso, and Zhang Weili will find their titles challenged, not only by their existing rivals but also by an ever-increasing list of younger names eager to make their mark in the UFC.
November 18, 2023, marks the 30th Anniversary of the UFC. To celebrate this, we're looking at three of these up-and-coming UFC fighters who'll likely assist in leading the successful UFC brand in transitioning from the first 30 years into the next.
German-born Georgian-Spaniard Ilia Topuria has everything needed to be successful in MMA. At 26, he's already ranked fifth in the UFC Featherweight rankings. Topuria is undefeated in his first six UFC fights, with his most recent victory coming via a unanimous decision against the experienced Josh Emmett in June.
Topuria was meant to fight for the Featherweight title at next January's UFC 297 in Toronto against the reigning champ Alexander Volkanovski. Due to Volkanovski stepping in to fight Islam Makhachev for the UFC LIghtweight title at short notice in October, the bout has been postponed until February. It will now form part of UFC 298, with the venue likely to be in Los Angeles.
The younger challenger is not currently favored in the offshore betting odds. Topuria is priced at +156 compared to Volkanovski's -181. It's unlikely these odds or the change of venue will deter Ilia Topuria's confidence. Back in June, before the match-up was set, he commented on locations.
"If I'm the best in the world, I can beat him in Australia, in Las Vegas, in Miami, in Spain. Whenever we go, I beat him. Location is no problem."
Erin Blanchfield, hailing from New Jersey, is expecting a shot at champion Alexa Grasso's UFC Women's Flyweight title soon. With a perfect UFC record in her first six UFC bouts, including a win over former champion Jéssica Andrade, the 24-year-old has every right to believe a title fight is due.
Blanchfield may have to wait a little longer, though. Grasso's September defense of the title she won against Valentina Shevchenko in March ended as a draw, so there's every chance of a third fight between the two. Dana White confirmed this at a post-fight press conference in September.
“You have to do the rematch. We will rematch them. It’s the right thing to do. It’s the fight that needs to happen, and yeah.”
Brazilian Heavyweight Jailton Almeida may not be as young as the others we've mentioned, but he's still a relative novice in the UFC. The 32-year-old's recent convincing points win over UFC journeyman Derrick Lewis at UFC Fight Night 231 in São Paulo was his first UFC fight in six to go the distance. His victory over the highly-respected Lewis was his sixth in the UFC, leaving him with a 100% record with the enterprise.
Almeida is aiming high for the future, with Frenchman Ciryl Gane firmly on his radar. Gane's only two UFC losses in 11 fights came against star opponents - Francis Ngannou and Jon Jones. Almeida called out the top-ranked Heavyweight after his São Paulo win.
"I'm going to call out a name. I want Cyril Gane, I'll fight him in Paris, wherever."
Online betting shops feel that the UFC might consider an Almeida-Gane matchup may not happen just yet, though. They're offering the following odds on who Almeida's next opponent could be.
Curtis Blaydes +150
Ciryl Gane +250
Alexander Volkov +350
Blaydes is an experienced UFC fighter, having unsuccessfully stepped into the Octagon against Ngannou twice. His 2021 loss against Almeida's most recent opponent, Lewis, means such a match may not suit the ambitions of the rapidly ascending Brazilian. Jailton Almeida certainly feels he can beat Gane, and beating him would progress his UFC career faster than a victory over Blaydes would.